social reforms

Social Darwinism

Social Darwinism is a theory that competition among all individuals, groups, nations or ideas drives social evolution in human societies. The term draws upon the common use of the term Darwinism to refer to various evolutionary ideas and ideas of "survival of the fittest (also, refer to "The Gospel of Wealth" theory written by A. Carnegie) ", regardless of whether or not they are related to Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection which explains speciation in populations as the outcome of competition between individual organisms for limited resources.

The term first appeared in Europe in 1879 and was popularized in the United States in 1944 by the American historian Richard Hofstadter, and has generally been used by critics rather than advocates of what the term is supposed to represent.

While the term has been applied to the claim that Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection can be used to understand the social endurance of a nation or country, social Darwinism commonly refers to ideas that predate Darwin's publication of On the Origin of Species. Others whose ideas are given the label include the 18th century clergyman Thomas Malthus, and Darwin's cousin Francis Galton who founded eugenics towards the end of the 19th century.

Some claim that it supports racism on the lines set out by Arthur de Gobineau before Darwin published his theories, which directly contradict Darwin's own work. This classification of social Darwinism constitutes part of the reaction against the Nazi regime and the Holocaust.

Theories and origins

Despite the fact that social Darwinism bears Charles Darwin's name and his works were widely read by social Darwinists, the theory also draws from the work of many other authors, including Herbert Spencer, Thomas Malthus, and Francis Galton, the founder of eugenics. Darwin himself gave serious consideration to Galton's work, but thought the ideas of "hereditary improvement" impractical. Aware of weaknesses in his own family, Darwin was sure that families would naturally refuse such selection and wreck the scheme. He thought that even if compulsory registration was the only way to improve the human race, this illiberal idea would be unacceptable, and it would be better to publicize the "principle of inheritance" and let people decide for themselves. In The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex of 1882 he described how medical advances meant that the weaker were able to survive and have families, and commented on the effects of this, while cautioning that hard reason should not override sympathy, and considering how other factors might reduce the effect –

Herbert Spencer

Herbert Spencer's ideas, like those of evolutionary progressivism, stemmed from his reading of Thomas Malthus, and his later theories were influenced by those of Darwin. However, Spencer's major work, Progress: Its Law and Cause (1857) was released two years before the publication of Darwin's On the Origin of Species, and First Principles was printed in 1860. In regard to social institutions, there is a good case that Spencer's writings might be classified as 'social Darwinism'. He argues that the individual (rather than the collectivity) is the unit of analysis that evolves, that evolution takes place through natural selection, and that it affects social as well as biological phenomena.

In many ways Spencer's theory of cosmic evolution has much more in common with the works of Lamarck and Auguste Comte's positivism work than Darwin.

Spencer's work also served to renew interest in the work of Malthus. While Malthus's work does not itself qualify as social Darwinism, his 1798 work An Essay on the Principle of Population, was incredibly popular and widely read by social Darwinists. In that book, for example, the author argued that as an increasing population would normally outgrow its food supply, this would result in the starvation of the weakest and a Malthusian catastrophe. According to Michael Ruse, Darwin read Malthus' famous Essay on a Principle of Population in 1838, four years after Malthus' death. Malthus himself anticipated the social Darwinists in suggesting that charity could exacerbate social problems.

Another of these social interpretations of Darwin's biological views, later known as eugenics, was put forth by Darwin's cousin, Francis Galton, in 1865 and 1869. Galton argued that just as physical traits were clearly inherited among generations of people, so could be said for mental qualities (genius and talent). Galton argued that social morals needed to change so that heredity was a conscious decision, in order to avoid over-breeding by "less fit" members of society and the under-breeding of the "more fit" ones.

In Galton's view, social institutions such as welfare and insane asylums were allowing "inferior" humans to survive and reproduce at levels faster than the more "superior" humans in respectable society, and if corrections were not soon taken, society would be awash with "inferiors." Darwin read his cousin's work with interest, and devoted sections of Descent of Man to discussion of Galton's theories. Neither Galton nor Darwin, though, advocated any eugenic policies such as those which would be undertaken in the early 20th century, as government coercion of any form was very much against their political opinions.

Friedrich Nietzsche's philosophy addressed the question of artificial selection, but it was built against Darwinian theories of natural selection. His point of view on sickness and health, in particular, opposed him to the concept of biological adaptation, forged by Spencer's "fitness". He criticized both Haeckel, Spencer, and Darwin, sometimes under the same banner. Nietzsche thought that, in specific cases, sickness was necessary and even helpful. Thus, he wrote:

The publication of Ernst Haeckel's best-selling Welträtsel ('Riddle of the Universe') in 1899 brought social Darwinism and earlier ideas of racial hygiene to a very wide audience, and its recapitulation theory (since heavily refuted on many fronts ) became famous. This led to the formation of the Monist League in 1904 with many prominent citizens among its members, including the Nobel Prize winner Wilhelm Ostwald. By 1909 it had a membership of some six thousand people.

The simpler aspects of social Darwinism followed the earlier Malthusian ideas that humans, especially males, need competition in their lives in order to survive in the future, and that the poor should have to provide for themselves and not be given any aid, although most social Darwinists of the early twentieth century supported better working conditions and salaries, thus giving the poor a better chance to provide for themselves and distinguishing those who are capable of succeeding from those who are poor out of laziness, weakness, or inferiority.

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Darwinism and Hypotheses of Social Change

The term "social Darwinism" first appeared in an 1879 article in Popular Science by Oscar Schmidt, followed by an anarchist tract published in Paris in 1880 entitled "Le darwinisme social" by Émile Gautier. However, the use of the term was very rare—at least in the English-speaking world (Hodgson, 2004)—until the American historian Richard Hofstadter published his influential Social Darwinism in American Thought (1944) during World War II.

Hypotheses of social evolution and cultural evolution are common in Europe. The Enlightenment thinkers who preceded Darwin, such as Hegel, often argued that societies progressed through stages of increasing development. Earlier thinkers also emphasized conflict as an inherent feature of social life. Thomas Hobbes's 17th century portrayal of the state of nature seems analogous to the competition for natural resources described by Darwin. Social Darwinism is distinct from other theories of social change because of the way it draws Darwin's distinctive ideas from the field of biology into social studies.

Darwin's unique discussion of evolution was over the supernatural in human development. Unlike Hobbes, he believed that this struggle for natural resources allowed individuals with certain physical and mental traits to succeed more frequently than others, and that these traits accumulated in the population over time, which under certain conditions could lead to the descendants being so different that they would be defined as a new species.

However, Darwin felt that "social instincts" such as "sympathy" and "moral sentiments" also evolved through natural selection, and that these resulted in the strengthening of societies in which they occurred, so much so that he wrote about it in Descent of Man: "The following proposition seems to me in a high degree probable- namely, that any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts, the parental and filial affections being here included, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well, or nearly as well developed, as in man. For, firstly, the social instincts lead an animal to take pleasure in the society of its fellows, to feel a certain amount of sympathy with them, and to perform various services for them.

Social Darwinism, combined with National Efficiency was the main reason for the great social reforms of the early 1900s. After the landslide 1906 election, David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill began to reform society according to the Rowntree Report. The report detailed poor people from York and explained that although they tried hard to lift themselves of their poverty, it was nearly always impossible. This changed the social view that the poor were lazy and stupid, and new policies were made concerning the 'Deserving Poor'. These social reforms earned the Liberal Party the title 'Fathers of the Welfare State' and were largely down to Social Darwinism.


Social Darwinism can be found in the plays of August Strindberg which give dramatic form to the grotesque sexual antagonisms of the constant war against men and women.

United States

Spencer proved to be an incredibly popular figure in the 1870s primarily because of his application of evolution to all areas of human endeavor promoted an optimistic view of the future as inevitably becoming better; In the United States, writers such as Edward L. Youmans, William Graham Sumner, John Fiske, John W. Burgess, and other thinkers of the gilded age all developed theories of social evolution as a result of their exposure to Spencer (as well as Darwin).

Sumner never fully embraced Darwinian ideas, and some contemporary historians do not believe that Sumner ever actually believed in social Darwinism. The great majority of American businessmen rejected the anti-philanthropic implications of the theory. Instead they gave millions to build schools, colleges, hospitals, art institutes, parks and many other institutions. Andrew Carnegie, who admired Spencer, was the leading philanthropist in the world (1890-1920), and a major leader against imperialism and warfare.

H.G Wells was heavily influenced by Darwinist thought, and novelist Jack London wrote stories of survival that incorporate his views on social Darwinism.

Criticisms and controversies

Some pre-twentieth century doctrines subsequently described as social Darwinism appear to anticipate eugenics (despite the fact that Darwin did not advocate eugenic policies) and the race doctrines of Nazism. Critics have frequently linked evolution, Charles Darwin and social Darwinism with racialism, imperialism and eugenics, to support their assertion that social Darwinism became one of the pillars of Fascism and Nazi ideology, and that the consequences of the application of policies of "survival of the fittest" by Nazi Germany eventually created a very strong backlash against the theory.

The argument that Nazi ideology was strongly influenced by social Darwinist ideas is often found in historical and social science literature. For example, the Jewish philosopher and historian Hannah Arendt analysed the historical development from a politically indifferent scientific Darwinism via social Darwinist ethics to racist ideology. However, in the last years the argument has been radicalised and increasingly been taken up by opponents of evolutionary theory. The creationist ministry Answers in Genesis is especially known for some of these claims. Additionally, this is a position of intelligent design supporters as well. For example, it is a theme in Richard Weikart's work who is a historian at California State University, Stanislaus and is a senior fellow for the Center for Science and Culture of the Discovery Institute. It is also a main argument in the 2008 movie Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. These claims are widely criticized within the academic community. The Anti-Defamation League has rejected such attempts to link Darwin's ideas with Nazi atrocities, and has stated that "Using the Holocaust in order to tarnish those who promote the theory of evolution is outrageous and trivializes the complex factors that led to the mass extermination of European Jewry.". However, Weickart himself writes in his book "From Darwin to Hitler": "The multivalence of Darwinism and eugenics ideology, especially when applied to ethical, political, and social thought, together with the multiple roots of Nazi ideology, should make us suspicious of monocausal arguments about the origins of the Nazi worldview".

Similar criticisms are sometimes applied (or misapplied) to other political or scientific theories that resemble social Darwinism, for example criticisms leveled at evolutionary psychology. For example a critical reviewer of Weikarts book writes that "(h)is historicization of the moral framework of evolutionary theory poses key issues for those in sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, not to mention bioethicists, who have recycled many of the suppositions that Weikart has traced. Another example is recent scholarship that portrays Ernst Haeckel's Monist League as a mystical progenitor of the Völkisch movement and, ultimately, of the Nazi Party of Adolf Hitler. Scholars opposed to this interpretation, however, have pointed out that the Monists were freethinkers who opposed all forms of mysticism, and that their organizations were immediately banned following the Nazi takeover in 1933 because of their association with a wide variety of progressive causes including feminism, pacifism, human rights, and early gay liberation movements.

Similarly, capitalist economics, especially laissez-faire economics, is attacked by some socialists by equating it to social Darwinism because it is premised on the idea of natural scarcity, also the starting point of social Darwinism, and because it is often interpreted to involve a "sink or swim" attitude toward economic activity. However while many industrialists supported social Darwinism during the gilded age, later notable advocates of laissez-faire rejected it. Ludwig von Mises argued in his book Human Action that social Darwinism contradicts the principles of liberalism.

Social Darwinist theory itself does not necessarily engender a political position: some social Darwinists would argue for the inevitability of progress, while others emphasize the potential for the degeneration of humanity, and some even attempt to enroll social Darwinism in a reformist politics. Rather, social Darwinism is an eclectic set of closely interrelated social theories -- much in the way that existentialism is not one philosophy but a set of closely interrelated philosophical principles.

Some economic critics of social Darwinism point to David Ricardo's comparative advantage and claim that weaker members of society are valuable even if the stronger members are better at doing everything. However, social Darwinism does not necessarily assert the latter. Comparative advantage relies on the idea that trade and cooperation are more important than pure competitiveness, which might inhibit trade by erecting protective barriers.


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